Stephen Angell, professor of religion at Earlham College, writes about the belief among early Friends that one could attain “absolute Truth” through the Inward Light of Christ, and how challenging this idea is for us today:
This has been a fascinating and needed discussion. Thanks to Adria Guzman, James Riemermann, and all of the contributors to this thread.
Through this thread, we are seeing vividly how diverse universalism can be among Friends.
As a Christian Universalist, I do hearken back to Robert Barclay’s distinction between (1) the conscience, as an important, indeed indispensable, yet fallible human organ, and (2) the Light of Christ, which is divine and eternal. I want to affirm Barclay’s distinction here between apprehension of relative truths through the conscience and apprehension of absolute truth through the Light of Christ. The two may be closely related — a common formulation of 17th century Friends was “the Light in the conscience” — but they are not the same.
As a 21st century Friend, I am more cautious than Friend Barclay in asserting when the absolute truth has been attained. Some of Barclay’s own examples — for example, he implied that Muslims espoused a relative truth when they advocated abstention from alcoholic beverages, whereas the absolute truth would be that moderate consumption of alcohol is acceptable — are matters that Quakers ourselves have gone back and forth on during our more than three-and-a-half centuries of existence.
As Friends, we have to be exceedingly diligent and careful (even playful!) in our use of discernment on our “leadings”, individually and corporately, before we can have any thought of claiming any sense of absolute truth. But as wonderfully or irritatingly fractious and diverse as we are as 21st century Friends, let us not give up on the possibility of our uniting on the ground of truth. It is a core Quaker conviction.